Last year was an ugly one at Gray Plant Mooty. Like many law firms, it was facing a big revenue shortfall. To cope, Gray Plant reduced hourly employees' hours and sliced salaried workers' pay by 5 percent to 10 percent, with lawyers bearing the biggest cuts.

Yet the Minneapolis-based law firm was ranked among the 100 Top Workplaces in the Twin Cities in 2010, one of only three law firms to earn that distinction, according to a Star Tribune special report.

For Gray Plant and many other companies, 2009 presented a special challenge: Make sacrifices needed to cope with the worst economic downturn in decades without sacrificing their reputations as top-flight employers.

That meant keeping employees in the loop about cuts, spreading economic pain to higher-paid employees and soliciting workers' input to help cut ancillary costs before core costs -- such as cutting plant-watering services before people.

But perhaps most important, top workplaces have laid a foundation of worker goodwill long before the bad times hit. "It comes from establishing good relations with employees and establishing trust in the good times," said Tamara Olsen, Gray Plant Mooty's managing officer.

The Star Tribune's Top Workplaces 2010 survey specifically asked employers to comment on their "downturn strategies."

For a few, 2009 was a good year despite the recession -- and they actually added jobs.

Many used words such as "careful," "conservative" and "prudent" to describe how they weathered 2009 without cutbacks.

And a handful noted that despite their own relatively good fortune in 2009, they were compelled to address economic setbacks experienced by their employees' kin.

General Mills, for instance, last summer for the first time offered free career workshops for family members of employees who had lost their jobs. And the Golden Valley-based packaged food giant gave its employees any needed scheduling flexibility to take care of personal issues caused by the bad economy.

General Mills' strong 2009 seemed to bolster its standing with employees. "The way that our business is stronger than ever in this tough economic time only enhances my feelings that this company is making great strategic plans and decisions," one General Mills employee commented on the survey.

Such comments underscore what employees most value when they rate their workplaces, according to WorkplaceDynamics research.

Being "appreciated at this organization" was the top factor in how employees ranked their workplaces, followed closely by a belief that their employer "is going in the right direction."

Those would seem like more difficult beliefs to hold when your employer is cutting hours or jobs. Yet they were common at top workplaces that were retrenching.

"The firm's management appreciates my value," said one employee at Gray Plant Mooty. "The organization cares about me as an individual," said another at Twin Cities Public Television (TPT).

Preparing for the worst

The St. Paul-based TV station prepared for the worst in early 2009, reducing hours for some employees on a voluntary basis, freezing wages for nonunion workers and asking its union workers for a rollback of wages to 2008 levels. The unions accepted, but negotiated a clause rescinding the rollbacks if TPT still had to resort to layoffs.

It did -- three people were laid off -- the rollbacks were rescinded and labor relations have seemed a bit sour lately, said Richard Bowring, president of NABET Local 411, which represents technicians and other broadcast workers. Still, said Bowring, "I've been here 20 years and I love my job and it's a great place to work."

Transparency is a hallmark of a good employer that's forced to cut back. "We tried very hard to share with employees information about what the firm was doing," said Gray Plant Mooty's Olsen. The effort appeared to resonate.

One Gray Plant Mooty employee commented: "The firm is honest and forthright with us regarding its economic future. We have regular meetings to keep us posted on things like that, and it is really appreciated."

Several top workplaces reported seeking employee input to help deal with the bad economy. Minneapolis-based public relations firm Padilla Speer Beardsley asked employees to come up with cost-saving ideas, and several obliged, some winning $25 gift certificates at Cub Foods for their efforts.

One idea: Nix the plant care service and have employees water the office's plants. That saved about $3,500 a year. Another: Use a lesser grade of paper in the office's printers, which saved about $250 per year. "That's not huge, but it's the little things that add up," said Barb Kuklock, Padilla's vice president of administration.

There was a similar drill at Minneapolis-based Noran Neurological Clinic, and management "got some excellent ideas" from workers, said Phil Riveness, the clinic's associate administrator.

One of them was to be more assertive in reminding patients -- via phone calls and post cards -- about upcoming doctors' appointments. No-shows translate into lost revenue. Through better monitoring of upcoming appointments, Noran's no-show rate dropped from 15 percent to 12 percent of all patients, Riveness said.

As the clouds cleared this spring at Gray Plant Mooty, some of last year's cuts were restored. Hourly workers were no longer required to take six unpaid furlough days, while the 5 percent pay cut for non-attorney salaried workers was lifted. The 10 percent salary cut for law associates stayed, however.

Still, even with all the cutting last year, Gray Plant was able to pay out its regular annual bonus to all employees.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003